Wolfenstein – The Old Blood

wolfenstein_the_old_blood_coverWolfenstein: The Old Blood is a standalone prequel expansion to Wolfenstein: The New Order, a game that I played in the summer of 2014, before starting this blog.

The New Order (or TNO) was one of the best shooters I’d played in recent memory. Mechanically, the gunplay was responsive, visceral and satisfying, allowing players to feel powerful but not invincible. It was so good, in fact, that I went back and replayed vast swaths of the game’s levels just because I enjoyed it so much, and that’s something I don’t usually do.

But what elevated TNO from entertaining shooter to great game was its atmosphere, level design and narrative. TNO was a decidedly old-school single player only experience in a vast field peppered with multiplayer FPSes with paper-thin stories and on-rails gameplay. TNO managed to recall the glory days of narrative-driven single player shooters like Half Life 2 – it offered maps with multiple pathways of approach and multiple gameplay options. It had health pickups. It explored new gunplay mechanics – while Half Life 2 had its gravity gun, TNO had the LaserKraftWerk. It had great art direction – from intimate spaces to the insane, hypermodernist structures of Nazi-ruled Berlin. TNO  showed us a starkly compelling nightmare vision of a brutal dystopia ruled by Nazis – a morally absolutist regime characterised by wacky but sinister villains like General Death’s Head and Frau Engel, sure, but that was probably the point. The game wanted us to have no compunctions in killing Nazis, and it succeeded.

Conversely, it showed great care and sensitivity in dealing with the good guys as characters. In TNO, much effort was put into making them into compelling companions in the protagonist’s quest to topple the Nazi regime. Much like the characters of Half Life 2, they were interesting, compelling

Narratively, TNO was also a spiritual sequel to Half Life 2, featuring many of the same narrative beats. A famous protagonist wakes up after a long period of stasis in a dystopian nightmare ruled by entities that turn normal humans into shambling supersoldiers. He seeks out the Resistance and falls in love with one of their members, and seeks out the villain who made the dystopia possible in the first place. Many of the set-piece levels are also similar – sewer missions in which the player is attacked by robotic drones, river traversal maps, escape-the-occupied-city missions. But TNO doesn’t feel like a rehash, but an homage, a much-needed callback to better days and good old-fashioned – and importantly, narratively-justified – righteous violence.

Wolfenstein: The Old Blood is, for the most part, an entertaining extension of the base game. However, the story here is a lot less compelling – probably because it seems so much more conventional – one part storming the Nazi stronghold, another part mowing down Nazi zombies – which doesn’t inspire quite the same sense of grandiose horror as the vision of the neo-futurist global Nazi empire of the base game. Old Blood tries to respin the old formula by putting in a few sympathetic characters – but for the most part, the dictates of game length and pacing mean that their character arcs have no space to blossom, and ultimately fall flat. As an example, Annette, a refugee you meet and protect for part of the game, pretty much tells you her whole life story in a dense exposition-laden package and expects you, the player, to care – but it doesn’t quite come off as anything but odd and stilted. But I can forgive the game for its narrative shortcomings, because it frankly doesn’t have much room to develop a compelling narrative.

Instead, the Old Blood focuses on a solid gunplay experience – extending the mechanics of TNO while introducing a few new ones, some better than others. There’s the pipe, which allows the player to climb rock walls and stab Nazis through the throat for yet another hyper-violent takedown option, but not much else. Then there’s the ability to turn Nazis into zombies in the second half by shooting their bodies but not their heads, causing them to turn on the nearest victim – usually another Nazi. This is actually quite fun, but not quite developed enough, and I wish some of the maps exploited this mechanic a bit more.

In terms of level design, the game isn’t as polished as TNO. The first half is marred by some genuinely tedious stealth sections, where the player is stuck just waiting for enemies to walk to the right places before advancing. In the second half, the game makes an attempt to borrow from Half Life 2 again, by placing the action in a zombie-infested town a la Ravenholm. But in this case, mowing down endless hordes of dumb shambling Nazi zombies, while fun at first, quickly wears out its welcome. Unlike Half Life 2‘s famous Ravenholm level, Wulfberg doesn’t have the same sense of creeping dread arising from the gameplay – the player is too powerful to feel fear from the shambling zombie hordes.

The final boss battle is also a disaster, and probably the worst part of The Old Blood. It involves taking potshots at a giant bullet sponge monster while fending off hordes of Nazi soldiers that idiotically shoot you while blithely ignoring the real giant-sized threat in the room. The set-up is nonsensical, the AI is ridiculous, and the sequence is just bug-ridden – at times, the soldiers simply hung in the air after being killed. It’s a ponderous, unsatisfying exercise involving a lot of downtime and irritation.

In all, The Old Blood feels like a fun DLC tacked on to a superior base experience, and is priced appropriately to that level. But I’d still recommend playing the original first, despite the fact that the Old Blood takes place before it in chronological terms.

I give this game: 3 out of 5 pipes


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